Yeah, we should probably care more about shrimp welfare
I know it sounds weird, but stay with me.
The welfare of shrimp should be considered due to their apparent sentience, and it should not be dismissed simply because the idea is weird. Even though shrimp are cognitively simpler than other animals, they may still be capable of feeling pain and suffering. Further research is needed to determine the extent of shrimp's ability to feel pain and suffering, but their potential suffering alone is reason enough to at least consider their welfare. The act of considering the perspective of beings different from ourselves is a useful moral exercise.
We should maybe care about shrimp welfare.
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You might be wondering how I reached this conclusion. Perhaps I pulled out my utilitarian calculator, multiplied 500 billion by some small percentage point, and then concluded that shrimp suffering is a big deal.
I like moral math as much as the next guy, don’t get me wrong. But in this case, I started with a more basic question: what is it like to be a shrimp?
I don’t know, I’m a Homo Sapiens. But it seems like there’s some good reason to think that shrimp are sentient beings. They appear to feel pain, they seem to have preferences, and it really seems like they can suffer. In other words, they are the kind of being we should consider from a moral perspective.
Don’t just take it from me: in 2005, EU scientists claimed that the scientific evidence clearly indicates that shrimp can feel pain and distress. Even the UK government agrees. In Spring 2022, the UK Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act became law, thereby recognising shrimp sentience.
Fine, maybe they’re sentient
Okay, so shrimp appear to be sentient. But this doesn’t answer the question of what it’s like to be a shrimp. For all we know, they could just idyllically float around all day, doing shrimp things — aka not really thinking about or feeling much at all.
A report from the Shrimp Welfare Project pours cold water on this notion, unfortunately. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of some things that make shrimps’ lives unpleasant:
Eyestalk ablation: Also known as removing a shrimp’s eyes. Yikes. This causes aversive behavioural responses in shrimp, and is likely to be a significant welfare concern. It turns out that having your eyes plucked out is not a particularly pleasurable experience, even if you’re a shrimp.
Disease: Disease can run rampant when shrimp are crammed together. This can cause significant mortality events and suffering in shrimp.
Inhumane stunning and slaughter methods: Current methods, such as asphyxiation or immersion in ice slurry, are likely to be inhumane.
High stocking density: This can indirectly impact shrimps’ welfare by reducing water quality and increasing disease, as well as directly impacting their behaviour and stress levels.
Lack of environmental enrichment: This can reduce shrimp survival and may affect their stress and behaviour.
Poor transport and handling practices: This can cause physical injury and stress in shrimp.
Inadequate nutrition: This can lead to non-infectious disease and abnormal behaviour in shrimp.
Again, it's true that we don't know exactly what it's like to be a shrimp. But just because something looks or acts different than us doesn't mean we have the right to inflict suffering on it — just ask your dog.
Ideally, if we are to dismiss the moral relevance of shrimp, we should have a better reason than "well, that sounds silly and weird." Something being weird is not a good reason for moral inaction. Thinking carefully about the perspective of another being, even if it is very different from our own, is a crucial part of being a sophisticated moral thinker.
I realise the dog analogy is imperfect. Perhaps shrimp are so cognitively simple that they cannot perceive pain or pleasure in the same way that a dog can. That strikes me as quite plausible, but I’m not certain. This is an empirical question which we don’t have a good enough answer to — and the preliminary signs that shrimp can suffer seem concerning enough to motivate further research, not dismissive hand waving.
Empirical questions aside, thinking about shrimp welfare can be a useful moral exercise. You might find yourself embodying what I view as an excellent virtue by doing so.
Being virtuous: or how I learned to stop being parochial and love the shrimp
Let’s wax philosophical for a second.
First, I have to be honest: I don’t really understand virtue ethics. Can I just make up whatever virtues I want? And what if I just do those virtues because I think they’re likely to lead to good consequences? Ah wait, I can’t do that? Okay whatever, I’m going to do it anyway.
With that said, I think it’s virtuous to be someone with a wide moral circle. Nothing embodies virtue quite like letting something into your circle of moral concern, especially when doing so is inconvenient or leads to eyebrow raising from your peers. Caring when you have very little to gain is good. If you feel compelled enough to consider the moral well-being of a little water bug in a thoughtful way, I think this reflects well on your moral character.
But here’s the worst part: caring about shrimp welfare doesn’t even make me a particularly virtuous moral thinker. I’m utterly gutted to say that shrimp suffering is far more common sensical than I thought before writing this article. I’m not being a special snowflake here, unfortunately.
As I mentioned before, the UK government recognises shrimp sentience. Okay but maybe I’m far more moral than the general popul— wait what? You’re telling me that roughly 60 percent of respondents in a nationally representative survey of UK residents agreed that shrimp can feel pain? Wow.
Maybe you’re unconvinced, but here’s the real takeaway
So let’s recap:
We assign moral status all the time to beings that do not look or act like us
Scientists think that the evidence clearly shows that shrimp can feel pain and distress
The UK government recognises them as sentient
A lot of very unpleasant sounding things are common practice in shrimp farming
Even 60 percent of the UK population thinks that shrimp are sentient
I think it’s virtuous to have a wide moral circle
Despite all of this, you might still think that regarding shrimp as morally relevant is silly. It just feels weird, right? But I’d argue that it could be a grave moral mistake to think that beings capable of suffering don’t deserve our moral consideration just because they’re weird water bugs with borderline alien-like physiology. After all, the question is not can they reason nor can they talk, but can they suffer.
The main takeaway from this article is actually not that you ought to be concerned about shrimp welfare. I mean, I’d like it if you were, but that’s a tall ask. Instead, my hope is that reflecting on shrimps’ moral status will help you think more clearly about who you allow into your circle of moral concern, and who you exclude. And who knows — maybe one day you’ll let the shrimp in.
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